wanted me to stay in Leipzig. He reminded me of this the day he died; his yellowed and melted form in the hospital
bed barely shifting to speak of this in my direction. I sat in a chair four feet back, silently desperate to get out of my hometown
ever since I’d returned three weeks prior to see Dad off. I sent him a nod
and he turned his head away, satisfied.
I was lying but I pretended in my mind that he would forgive me if he understood why. He’d been a rancorous man for as long as I knew him; quite verbally abusive and also having dabbled in wife and child beating. He went off at me for wanting to paint and was close to disowning me when I left at age 22 to attend an artists college in Oslo. But in the dimmed, humming room in the ensuing hour I imagined him granting a bit of compassion.
His sprawling figure there, so uncharacteristically vulnerable, was draped only partially by the white bed sheet. He remained out of consciousness the majority of the time and all the while I forced myself to stare at the decrepit being. I tried for a good while to view him this moment as an ethereally lighted figure in a work by Rembrandt, but it was just futile to erase the scene of a Bosch man writhing at the end of a triptych.
I closed my eyes for maybe ten minutes to begin mentally streaking oils onto a canvass that would become a summation of how I saw my father. The smattering of dark colors looked like nothing more than a splotched abstraction when I heard the nurse’s footsteps. One of my brothers, Alex, was there with me to hear the nurse say he’d passed— our other two brothers declined to come. After the moon-faced nurse spoke the words “He’s gone,” I’d suddenly wished I had refused to be there as well. My brother and I were left alone in the room and Alex said nothing as I seethed for several minutes in my chair. The death and the loss of a last living parent didn’t anger me at all; I was absolutely furious at myself for having even been examining my father as my next possible piece just before he died.
Confusion and disgust filled my limbs. I made two small fists before I rose from my seat. Alex went to hug me and I quickly relaxed my body.
“I hope you aren’t too upset, Kate. It’s done….”
I emitted a sudden snort of laughter on his shoulder.
“I’m fine. It’s a good thing to have it through and I’m not that upset.”
He didn’t appreciate my chortle but I appreciated his need to comfort me. He and I had just not been around each other in five years and it proved salt in the wound to be reminded how much we didn’t know each other.
Three days later I was back in my apartment in Chicago, staring dully at a bone canvass while my right hand kept limp at my side. Maddening. I don’t know how long I and this blankness faced off, but light entering the window faded into orange and the buildings nearby eventually shadowed it into a slim shining filament. The ray struck the floor in front of me.
I laughed out loud when I looked at the dagger of light as a line meant for me to dare myself to cross. Whenever I catch myself getting lost in cliché melodramatic fashion like this I’m sickened. To get rid of it sometimes I think I might pull out all my hair. But that would be giving in too hastily. Most of the time I quickly recognize it as a required delirium and continue my creative process, but this occasion was very different. I was loathing myself, floundering after having witnessed the death of something I hated rather than cared for, and feeling no desire to paint it or anything else.
This being my primary sustenance all my 30 years up to then, I had no clue what to do. I lingered in front of the canvass a moment longer, suddenly seized with the idea that my father may have received his wish for me to stop “my foolishness,” and without it I would be smacked with the awful reality of being absolutely useless in my existence. Having zero to contribute to the world. I wondered if this was what he’d felt all his life, having tried a hand at everything but ultimately discovered himself passionless, and I felt a surge of anger switch back to him and his maliciousness.
The ultimate fear arrived. Would I end up painting Persian kittens and bow-haired Lhaso Apsos and placing them along the side a wrought-iron fence to sell?
I knew my answer but it felt right to pose myself with such a consequence. It was perfect since I was reeling in shame. But it got me no closer to the canvass.
On Halloween two nights later I went out to the bars sporting a dark blue dress and sparkling red devil horns on my head. I ventured to my favorite bar last because the walls inside reminded me of a painting I adored at the Kunsthaus Zurich, so I thought it might sting my senses regally this night. Krissa was there, one of the few without a costume, dancing in her own little circle at the opposite end of the bar as a group of men watched her. These drakes were drinking, but I knew their throats remained parched so long as Krissa remained in their view.
“Hey! Speak of the devil,” Georgeano quipped as I took a seat at the bar next to him. It was probably the ninth time that evening I’d heard it, but this was the only time I wasn’t irked. Georgeano defined the irreverent, always good-humored bar regular and he didn’t sound hungry when he spoke to women. His voice seemed almost one of consolation when he made the Satan crack.
“How long has she been here?” I asked him.
“Too long. I think she’s sick of you for good now, my dear.”
I ordered a whisky sour and watched her. Krissa’s short bob of black hair was as always an aching sight. The locks seemed a deliberate, thick charcoal sweep atop the rest of her cream colored form. Her form had served as model for three of my paintings.
Two paintings too long, she’d finally discovered how little I could offer in any other realm. I had no interest in most things or places that gave her joy. I had no real interest in sharing those I did find pleasure in.
I missed her, and although I knew I’d find her there I was well aware how little Krissa could help me. When I caught her eye she raised an eyebrow. Her eyes rolled. She mouthed something to a man close to her; one dressed up like maybe a bloody punk, and she returned to her private inebriated circle.
I took time finishing my first two drinks, then I approached the still dancing Krissa as she grooved in the opposite direction. Tapped her shoulder.
“Well if it isn’t the devil.” She said without a smile.
“Do you think I have any interest in talking to you?”
“No. I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
The “fine” was all I sought since I figured I probably deserved much less. This time when she turned away I took notice of what her backless dress offered for show. Her shoulder blades were cupped countless times as I moved my palms over her naked form on my apartment floor, for almost an hour sometimes, not sexual but only lost in intense sessions of awe. The inundations I took on were not something I could say I did on purpose. They just took over. Some loved it and some would grow annoyed, the models, but at that moment while watching her blades move I felt absolutely nothing.
Worthless to me, this was living creature useless in a two-dimensional depiction. She’s been done and done and I’ve exhausted the point. Anymore attempts would only be pure self-indulgence. Just then, the silken chasm between her blades looked as artistically potent as a Persian kitten.
I let out a grunt, hastily grabbed a gold matchbook from a bowl on the counter and moved outside, the bar feeling overstocked with the breathing. I kept my distance from others and smoked a menthol while watching costumed partiers pass by. A mad hatter. A fuzzy pink cartoonish character with huge eyes. Pac man. Medea?
“Can I have one of those?”
Next to me appeared a tall, brown haired man who squinted as he spoke. I gave him a smoke and continued my observance of those on the path. I began ripping matches from the book and striking them in one hand, a habit I’d formed years back, and the cigarette bummer did not move away.
“That’s a pretty cool trick you got. Suits you.”
A shot him a look. What? He gestured up to my demonic sprouts. I kept my silence. I didn’t feel like asking him to leave me alone. I was far from hiding my maudlin state of being and should have suspected it would spark conversation. The unhealthiest part of my habit started up at that moment, where I began letting every other match in the book burn for a few moments into my thumb.
“Bad day?” he squinted again. I didn’t want to explain my temperament and felt it ultimately needed no explanation. A few choice versions of ‘leave me alone’ entered my mind but I resisted. Make good. Pissed off enough people today. Quota reached.
“So what do you do?” asked the guy.
“I’m a T-shirt printer.”
“Oh? T-shirts. Out of your house or something?”
“My cousin and I have a shop about thirty miles from here.”
“What sort of things do you print?”
“Anything someone wants. Logos. Pictures. Pithy phrases.”
“Hmm. That’s not what I heard you do.”
I squinted back at him. Continued striking matches.
“Actually I’ve seen your work. Really incredible stuff.” He looked behind him as a football player bumped his way through people to the door.
“I appreciate it.”
“Are you working on anything right now?”
“No,” I snapped. This was promptly followed with me flicking my cigarette towards a woman dressed as a hooker. She looked my way as she walked by and I noticed she also wore an oversized gold heart necklace.
“Watch it, bitch,” she spit.
“Where’s the loyalty to your character?” I responded. She ignored me and kept on. I turned to my acquaintance wearing a glib expression.
“Anyone with a heart of gold wouldn’t react like that, I’m sure.”
“You always carry this much fire with you?” he asked.
I rolled my eyes and couldn’t help but laugh. Sure I was acting out via an alternative route since my creative passion perished. To have it be called attention to was a much-needed cheek slap for my bedlam of a self.
“Painter’s block, I’m guessing,” he conclusioned aloud.
“What do you do?”
“I work at a lighter factory.”
“Ok and what does that entail?”
“We sticker, package and deliver lighters. Assembly lines, nauseating fumes and all that good stuff.”
“I have to say that sounds like a nightmare to me.”
“It could be worse. The pay is actually not bad. Allows for me to do what I really want.”
“Making film shorts.”
He motioned to my pocket, desiring another cigarette. He lit it with an obelisk shaped, metallic blue lighter I had not noticed him use before. The gleam of it beneath the streetlight streaked fast downward back into his pocket.
“You ever lose inspiration to film?” I asked, turning now towards him as I spoke.
“Here and there.”
“No you haven’t.”
He smirked. “How can you say that?”
“If you’d ever truly lost your desire for it, you wouldn’t be able to answer like that. With such ennui.”
“Just because I don’t answer the question the same way you would doesn’t negate the truth of my statement. Come on.”
“Alright. Yeah I realize. Still. I’d imagine the nastiness of the experience would be evident in your response. When you found yourself there, didn’t you freak out? Don’t you question your existence with … a pessimism beyond anything felt whenever having weighed that question before? I mean did you not think you would go crazy?”
By the end of my mini-rant I noticed my voice quiver and go high in emphasis, and I was surprised at the level of drama in my reaction. He smiled.
“Well I once questioned that. Sure. But it’s needless worry. I mean you’re an artist. You’re in crazy already. Of a sort. But really you’re not. You’re fine. You have to just let it go and trust it will come back at some point.”
“But it may not. When people around you die the significance of what you create is obsolete.”
I puffed on my smoking stick. I’d been moved all my life by watching life and death. Watching beautiful things die. But to see the death of that ugliness was like a shot to the gut. I, too, became ugly when I began imagining the moment on canvass in mid-demise.
“Maybe it won’t return. You’re right. But it will and all you can do is trust in that. You won’t go crazy because you still have that passion in you.” He waved both hands frantically in the air towards me, indicating me; my getup, my actions and how and of what I spoke.
I rolled my eyes as though I were twelve but at the same time saw his point.
“We often get these ideas of what happens to a person when they face losing what makes them thrive. If someone dies it can lead us to gawk at the futility of our lives. Do you know Antonin Artaud? ‘The truth of life lies in the impulsiveness of matter. The mind of man has been poisoned by concepts. Do not ask him to be content, ask him only to be calm, to believe that he has found his place. But only the madman is really calm.’ It can be looked at that simple. You need to see it that way. You’re not calm and you’re quite gifted. It’s just energy that’s taking a rest.”
His argument deeply impressed me and I had nothing to say back then. My gaze shifted to the backdrop—the shadowed glass front of the bar—and I just watched reflected forms move there for a several moments.
“You look like you’ve gone off somewhere else,” he said eventually.
I shook my head.
“Perhaps, but I like where you placed me.”
Another man’s voice called in our direction from further down the street, and rather abruptly the lighter packager said his goodbye and ventured off.
I lifted my hand to my lips and licked my browned and stiff thumb tip while watching him leave. I refocused my gaze and studied the slightly scorched appendage, comforted as I noted that despite injury, it still managed to send a signal of pain.
Fiction. December 2003.